The Interview: 'Zits' Co-Creator Jerry Scott
JERRY SCOTT knows about a little something about teenagers reaching driving age. For inspiration, he need only look out on his window of his San Luis Obispo home, even if he's as apt to find his elder daughter on a horse as behind the wheel. Still, all the telltale behaviors are there, from driving freedom to dating habits.
Over more than a quarter-century, Scott has proved himself rather deft as turning his observational powers at home into global comic-strip gold. The Indiana native took over the strip in "Nancy" in the '80s, and in 1990 he co-created the hit "Baby Blues" with Rick Kirkman. Moving topically from tots to teens, he followed up seven years later with the launch of another hit, "Zits," co-created by Jim Borgman and syndicated to some 1,600 newspapers.
One week from tomorrow, the star of "Zits," Jeremy -- the
oft-ravenous teen who gallumphs about in sneakers the size of snowshoes -- will turn 16. So will this mean a life of road trips and clandestine midnight missions? Not even Scott, 54, knows for sure. As the Reuben Award-winning cartoonist says of his plotting: "It's funny how I feel my way along in the dark."
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Scott to talk creative collaborations, comic-strip parentage -- and how he maintains two very successful strips at once without feeling as worn out as Mamma Wanda from "Baby Blues."
MICHAEL CAVNA: So first off, Jerry, I've got to ask: I've always heard that you and Jim dreamed up "Zits" while lounging on some magnificent porch in Sedona [Ariz.], just kicking back. Any truth to that?
JERRY SCOTT: It was in Sedona, where we were vacationing. ... While we were there, we went to dinner -- there was assigned seating [like a cruise ship] -- and we sat with an astrologist and a rabbi who are married. It sounds like a joke: "So an astrologist, a rabbi and two cartoonists..." But the astrologist asked us if we were in business together and said: "If you did, it would really work well" and could be a big success.
MC: That's a great story. And now, what's it like working with Jim some 12 years later?
JS: The partnership works really well. Jim is really smart -- I call him the soul of the strip. There's mutual respect in what we do. It's such a pleasure for me, to think of almost anything and I can have a sketch of it -- I'm [working out the timing] and the camera angles aren't quite right and the details aren't quite right. And I [then give it to Jim] and it comes out gold.
MC: I've heard that Elton John and Bernie Taupin could write songs from different locations -- that is, without having to be in the same room. Can you walk us through your collaborative process?
JS: It's very common for Jim [who's based in Cincinnati] to call and then send something back a little different. He'll say: "I just don't think [a character would] say that" or "That struck me as mean or ruder than we're comfortable with." Then we'll start reconstructing and [develop it into something] better than what we started with. It's wonderful. We came up with a mathematical formula: If we each do two-thirds of the work, the rest works itself out.
MC: Is that similar to how you work with Rick [Kirkman] on "Baby Blues"? What's that process like?
JS: It's longer. Rick prefers not to see my drawings. We've got a format we've worked up -- it's not unlike a television script. I have to draw it in my head. ... [For example] this week, the Sunday [strip] was written with a particular tone -- I kinda saw it in my head. It didn't hit Rick right; he drew it differently than what I sent. Then I did a drawing taking the best of both of our ideas and sent it back. And -- boom! -- he immediately saw [how it worked].
MC: I re-read the old "Zits" and "Baby Blues" and the humor holds up. It's structurally sound and the topics are timeless -- like watching 50-year-old reruns of Lucille Ball or Dick Van Dyke, the gags are timeless. Can you speak to how you approach the writing?
JS: I was a real student of the actors you mentioned. I love watching "The Lucy Show," and Dick Van Dyke was one of my favorites. One of my life's thrills was to meet Dick Van Dyke [about 10 years ago]. ... I love comedy and classic comedy. You can tell when stuff is really just good. I'm sure I was influenced by that. When I'm writing, it's got to hit a certain frequency of genuineness in my mind to make the cut. Some days are better than others.
MC: What do you do to try to keep your writing sharp?
JS: I have to work every day at it. ... Some of my favorite writers, I read their biographies -- these are people who write every day. There's the "secret formula": It's the enormous volume of work I have to put out every week. There are wonderful days when you hit a groove. Then there are weeks, you wish you could sell insurance, just to get a break.
MC: So Jeremy turns 16 at roughly the same time you say your eldest daughter reaches that age. Has your real life influenced that decision to let Jeremy have this birthday?
JS: I think it has. I'm an observer and an eavesdropper and a baldfaced thief. I listen to people and write down what they're saying. Jim [Borgman] has been raising teens for fun and profit for years now, and now they're grown up. He used to call himself an "embedded cartoonist" who was reporting from the front lines. ... But it was a natural confluence. The strip needed a new breath of life and -- hey, look! -- I've been making a lot of mental notes. ... Jim said: "We should give this kid a break and let him drive." Someone even came up to him [at an Ohio cartoon museum event] and said in a most concerned way: "You got to let the kid drive."
MC: So what day will Jeremy's actual birthday be?
JS: It'll be Aug. 14. I went back and checked the strips. Aug. 14 is the day Jeremy shows up at the DMV.
MC: So how will Jeremy's turning 16 and being able to drive affect the storylines?
JS: I think it's going to give us new writing opportunities. When I was a lot younger and working on the "Nancy" strip, "Sparky" Schulz and I would connect on the phone once in a while. He was such a generous guy. He would say something like: "Do you have any ideas today?" "No." Then he'd say: "What's NEW in your strip? You've got to always keep feeding new stuff into it, all the time." So that's what this is. It's like direction change. When [we launched the strip], we felt  was the maximum frustration age. You think you can run the world and you can't even drive a car. ... But driving a car is going to rachet up the tension between his parents and him. There's the newfound freedom. There will be more strips that don't involve his parents. That's going to create a whole new writing challenge that's kind of exciting -- we're going to get inside his head a little more.
MC: The other day, you had Jeremy in an especially passionate lip-lock that wasn't ironic or didn't even end in social embarrassment. Now that he's 16, are we going to see Jeremy's dating habits and relationships change considerably?
JS: Well, there's this cultural shift that I'm really aware of [compared with] when I was 16 and what my dating motivations were. It was all about going out with somebody and going steady with somebody. Now it's not that way with my [elder] daugther's friends -- that's not at all what they do anymore. It's more a group date that they have. It's almost unusual to have a boy and a girl be a couple -- as if it alarms them somehow. They find it almost quaint and antiquated and silly when it happens. On one hand, [they think it's] kind of cool. But on the other ...
MC: With that in mind, how might Jeremy's relationship change with Sara?
JS: With Jeremy and Sara, we're pulling back from steady dating and [making it] more like close friendship. That seems more genuiune. ... "RichandAmy" are a couple. But for the most part, Jeremy will reflect the group-dating kind of thing. ... It's funny how I feel my way along in the dark.
MC: So what will happen to the VW van that Jeremy and Hector have worked on forever? Driver's license in hand, could a road trip be in store?
JS: I think they'll drive the van -- they bought it together, he and Hector. We still haven't seen Hector behind the wheel. I think the van is going to become a character -- it IS a set. It provides a background that seems comfortable and familiar.
MC: Being on the family funnypages, do you find yourself writing around references to sex?
JS: We've had to. There were several instances when the syndicate just said: "We can't do this." We've said in interviews that doing a comic strip about a 15-year-old boy without alluding to sex is like trying to write about Detroit without mentioning cars. It's a difficult boundary to stay within. I'm conscious of what I do -- a comic strip is traditionally run in daily newspapers and those newspapers have certain expectations. If I have a quarrel with newspapers, it's when we get calls [about a comic] but I can look at your front page and read all sorts of colorful language. ... But we push gently and steadily against that [limitation on language]. I don't want to be known for bringing coarseness to the comics page. I always want to be genuine and not lose our audience of teenagers. That's right: it's soda pop and jalopies! It's a delicate balance. So far, we've concentrated on the interpersonal, and the other stuff just fits in the background. ... What we do is a humor strip. My job is to be funny. ... We're entertainers, we're not educators.
MC: So what will happen to Jeremy's elder brother? Will he age, too -- even if we haven't seen him in forever?
JS: I don't know WHAT he is. He seemed like a good idea [when we launched]. We draw as much as we can from our personal lives and my older sister -- like most first children -- was very responsible and academic and, to my eye, the one who never made any mistakes. The perfect older sibling. But then, we're stuck with [Chad, the strips' elder brother.] My favorite [Chad strip] was one day, Jeremy showed up and asked how long Chad had been home, and [Chad] said: "Dude, I've been here for 10 days." You're so involved in yourself as a teenager.
MC: Jeremy's look has changed some over the years. Will his look change markedly now that he's 16?
JS: I don't think so. I think he's already shifted a lot. ... Now, he could play 19 to 15 -- it's been sort of a conscious effort on our part to scruff him up. We get a broader identification among more readers, who say: "He's the same age as my kid."
MC: So will we see other characters turning 16 and getting their licenses now, too?
JS: I think Pierce is a little older, anyway. But Hector -- he must be going to get his license very soon.
THE RELATED READ:
THE INTERVIEW: "Zits" co-creator JIM BORGAN discusses his decision to take the buyout in Cincinnati.
| August 6, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Comic Strip
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